Thursday, June 01, 2006

Literature as History

José Saramago's O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis
By Chris Rollason

José Saramago followed up Memorial do Convento, his highly successful novel of the eighteenth century published in 1982, with O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), which appeared in 1984 (Obras de José Saramago, 3 volumes, Porto: Lello e Irmão, 1991, vol. III, pp. 345-745; all translations into English by the present writer). This novel explores a more recent period of Portuguese history, namely the 1930s -- the epoch of the consolidation and entrenchment of the Salazar dictatorship and the 'Estado Novo' regime which lasted from 1926 to 1974. Against a background of nationalist obscurantism in Portugal, civil war next door in Spain and increasingly bellicose fascism in Europe, this novel reconstructs the imaginary identity of Ricardo Reis, one of the pseudonyms, or 'heteronyms', adopted by the poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935; Pessoa's poems are signed variously under his own name and those of three fictitious poets invented by himself - Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis -- while his most important prose work, O Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), is credited to another alter ego, Bernardo Soares). Starting out from the 'biographical' indications supplied by Pessoa himself (Ricardo Reis is a doctor who lived for years in Brazil), Saramago imagines the character returning to Portugal in December 1935, and traces his daily life over the nine months up to his death. Reis arrives in Lisbon, rents a hotel room and then an apartment, gets involved with two women, Lídia and Marcenda, is followed by the police, and engages in metaphysical disquisitions with the ghost of the recently-deceased Fernando Pessoa. As in Memorial do Convento, Saramago's technique combines realist and non-realist elements, but this time adding to the brew a strong intertextual and metatextual element: the names Marcenda and Lídia both derive from Pessoa's Odes de Ricardo Reis, and, indeed, Saramago's whole novel is built around the reconstruction of another writer's fictional personage, imagined in dialogue with his creator.
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